While talking to a reporter about the Colts last week, one NFL general manager suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, almost as if he couldn't believe what he was about to say. "It seems like they've lost some of their mojo," he continued. "There used to be a mystique about them. You felt like even if they had injuries and players were out, they were going to find a way to get it done regardless of who was in there. That's not the case now."
Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell listened patiently as the comment was repeated to him last Friday. His battered team had lost two games in a row and three of the previous four. "All it takes is one game to change that perception," he replied, an amused smile creasing his face.
A 38--35 loss to the Cowboys at Lucas Oil Stadium was not that game. One of the big reasons for Indy's slide is that Peyton Manning, arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation, is in the midst of one of the worst stretches of his career. He completed 36 of 48 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, but he also threw four interceptions, two of which the Cowboys returned for touchdowns.
Manning's 2010 struggles had previously been written off to a banged-up receiving corps, ineffective or injured running backs and a porous line. But a clear sign that the problems run deeper is that Manning himself is now questioning his own decision making, for years one of the best parts of his game. "I threw four interceptions to guys who were covered," he says. "I've either got to throw it away or throw it to somebody else. That's basic football."
Manning, who hasn't thrown more than 16 interceptions in a season since 2002 has now thrown 11 in his last three games. Four of his picks have been returned for touchdowns, all in the last two weeks. Manning says that he's not pressing, but the numbers don't lie. He always has been a master at finding the mismatches and one-on-ones in any coverage scheme. But he threw his first interception on Sunday when he tried to hit Reggie Wayne down the left seam, even though Dallas safety Alan Ball, playing deep, was waiting on the ball. On the second Manning tried to force a short pass into the left flat to wideout Blair White on a comeback route, but cornerback Orlando Scandrick, playing zone coverage, simply stepped in front of the ball and returned it 40 yards for Dallas's second touchdown.
Manning likely just didn't see linebacker Sean Lee on his third interception, which Lee returned 31 yards for a score, but the four-time MVP admitted to forcing the ball to tight end Jacob Tamme on a short route down the left sideline in overtime. Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins leaped into the air to tip the ball, which fell into Lee's hands, setting up the decisive field goal.
"I had Reggie underneath, open," Manning said. "He probably runs for 25, 30 yards, but I threw it in there to Tamme. Just a poor read and a poor decision."
The line between aggressive and reckless can be fiber-optic thin in the NFL—just ask Jay Cutler (box)—but Manning has to take chances. The Colts have no running game; they were 31st in the league in rushing in 2008 and 32nd last season. This year they again rank last, with an average of 79.1 yards a game. Starting running back Joseph Addai has missed the last six games with a neck injury, and there's no firm timetable for his return. Backups Mike Hart and Javarris James have also been dinged up at various times this year.
Meanwhile, Manning's receiving corps has been decimated by injury: Tight end Dallas Clark (wrist) and wideout Anthony Gonzalez (knee) are out for the year. Second-year receiver Austin Collie (concussions) has missed four of the last six games, and Pierre Garcon (hamstring), a breakout star in 2009, missed two games early and is just beginning to find his rhythm. Those four, along with Wayne, were supposed to be Manning's security blanket, but the only game in which they've been on the field together was the season opener.
The lack of continuity is a nightmare for a quarterback who is obsessive about details. In practice it's not uncommon for Manning to stop a receiver in the middle of a play and instruct him on the proper way to run his route. When Gonzalez couldn't participate in off-season workouts as a rookie in 2007 because Ohio State had not yet held graduation ceremonies, Manning drove to Columbus to throw to him and develop a rapport. "I don't use [all the injuries] as an excuse or crutch for not doing my job well enough," he says. "We've got 11 guys on the field, and we are capable of scoring points when we execute our offense—and I don't turn the ball over." (The man has a point; after putting his team in a deep first-half hole, Manning led the Colts' offense to three second-half touchdowns to force overtime.)